It's now clear that to halt climate change we must quickly move from a world powered mostly by burning fuels to a world powered mostly by electricity, and this electricity must come from renewable resources: solar, wind, geothermal and others.
Is this possible? Can everything we need to do in a global high-tech civilization actually be done with electricity alone?
Saturday is chores day at our house, a small acreage just outside of Dawson Creek. Jumping on my E-ATV (a small electric home-size utility vehicle), I haul some firewood back to the house and buck it up with my battery-electric chainsaw. The lawnmower and edge-trimmer use the same rechargeable lithium batteries as the chainsaw. These new “smart” lithium batteries will run for 20 years plus with regular use. Charging in about an hour with several of them on hand, we never run out of juice.
The coolest part of this is that we charge all of these powerful and useful tools with our own rooftop solar array. Connected to the grid, this array not only powers everything in my home, it also reduces our electrical bills to almost zero.
The next step is to own a pure electric small pick-up truck, coming soon as promised by a wide range of manufacturers, including Ford. We may have to wait a few years until prices come down, but it won’t be a long wait. Global EV sales are exploding, and costs always come down as production ramps up.
Hard to go back
Everyone who moves to electric vehicles, or electric anything, has trouble moving back to burning fuels. Why?
Convenience and price. The chainsaw for instance. It’s pretty hard to beat popping in a fresh battery and pressing the “on” button, compared to pouring in toxic fuel, pulling and pulling just to get it running, and then putting up with the noise, the stench of poisonous exhaust, and the guilt of pouring yet more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from a mega-inefficient two-stroke engine.
Charging an EV from the grid costs about one third the cost of gasoline, and with your own solar array it costs nothing.
Sure, all of these things have their up-front costs, but once in place they are very low maintenance. An EV has just a handful of moving parts compared to the one thousand-plus in a gas vehicle, for instance. There are no fuel costs, and no carbon pollution during use. In other words, they pay for themselves, both in terms of my personal pocket book and in terms of the planet I have to live on.
My home solar array, for instance, provides a return on my investment in the 5 to 6% range, increasing with time as the cost of grid-electricity inevitably and never-endingly continues to rise.
There is nothing perfect about this solar-electric lifestyle. We all know there is always an environmental price to pay for any energy source or any manufactured goods.
But is it better than a world run on burning fuels? Is it cleaner overall? Does it reduce carbon and other pollution?
Most reputable studies are pretty clear on this point: even with most of our energy still coming from fossil fuels, electric is still a better way to go. And as we transition to more and more renewable energy, the carbon picture just keeps getting better and better.
Electricity is pretty amazing stuff. In a simple wire conductor, it travels from place to place at near the speed of light (very fast!) so you can shuffle it around to meet changing needs quickly and effortlessly.
You can’t spill electricity, and converting it to useful work, say in an electric motor, is 90% + efficient.
The global “smart grid” that we are headed for will even eliminate most of the need for energy storage, so often sited as a problem with intermittent renewables. Tie the whole world together electrically (as much of it already is) and we’re pretty well done: power nighttime Vancouver with solar energy from the Sahara desert, for instance.
And here are the really big bonuses: renewable electricity will last forever and everybody has some, shining from the sky and blowing in the wind. Just harvest nature’s cleanest energy and press the “on” button.
Don Pettit is vice-president of the Peace Energy Renewable Energy Cooperative in Dawson Creek. He can be reached at email@example.com.